When the rest of the NFL asks why — why sign Baker Mayfield? — the Rams say, “Why not?”
That’s been the ethos of these Rams all along, to zig when others zag.
Why not move to Los Angeles? Build a $5-billion stadium? Hire a 30-year-old head coach in Sean McVay? Trade a bunch of picks to draft Jared Goff? Trade a truckload more for Matthew Stafford, Jalen Ramsey and Von Miller?
That philosophy doesn’t always work. It can definitely catch up to you. This team mortgaged its future to win a Super Bowl, trading away all those draft picks, and it caught up to them this season. They had lost six in a row heading into Thursday night’s game against the Las Vegas Raiders.
Putting in a waiver claim on Mayfield after Carolina released him wasn’t a high-risk move. But it was something of a head-scratcher for people who thought the Rams would just slink off into a corner and call it a season. Just get it over with. They could limp through the rest of the year with quarterbacks Bryce Perkins and John Wolford.
Instead, they signed Mayfield, who generated no other interest around the league. Then they did the unthinkable, putting him out on the field at the most important position with basically one day of practice. That would be wild for a Sunday game — it’s only happened a few times in NFL history — and absolutely insane for a short-week Thursday game.
Back in 2011, the Raiders acquired Carson Palmer from Cincinnati and had him on the roster less than a week before testing him in a backup role against Kansas City. The Raiders lost that game, 28-0, and Palmer — who had plenty of great performances left in his career — had three interceptions in the second half.
It’s just a huge ask for a quarterback to speed-read a playbook, go through one day of practice, then successfully advance the ball in an actual game, let alone assemble a drive. So when the dead-in-the-water Rams trotted out Mayfield on their second possession Thursday night, it was the recipe for a clown show.
Astoundingly, it turned out to be one of the weirdest, wildest sports moments of the year.
Not only did Mayfield successfully run plays and complete passes, but he did the unthinkable. He orchestrated a 98-yard touchdown drive in the closing moments to beat the Raiders 17-16, dispatching a team that had won three in a row and had a flicker of a chance of making a playoff run.
What’s more, Mayfield did it in a raucous stadium filled with Raiders fans, cupping his hands over his helmet earholes as he tried to hear his brand-new play calls from his brand-new coach.
“I used to not necessarily complain about the fact that I had that many different offensive systems and having to learn that,” said Mayfield, the first NFL quarterback taken No. 1 overall to play for three franchises in his first five seasons. “But it came in handy when having to learn a crash course and being able to relate certain things.”
For instance, the Rams’ protection scheme is similar to the one Mayfield ran in Cleveland. So him knowing that terminology was a big plus. Still, it was a learn-as-you-go situation, with coaches and teammates talking through the next series of plays as soon as Mayfield got back to the sideline.
“There was a shortened list of plays that I was really studying,” Mayfield said. “I will say we dipped out of that list and got into some other things.”
There was no list for executing a 98-yard drive in the final 1 minute, 45 seconds culminating with a 23-yard pass to Van Jefferson, who somehow was left in one-on-one coverage, even though the Rams (who had no timeouts) had nowhere to throw but to the end zone.
“I was truly shocked that they pressed him up with 15 seconds left, knowing that we didn’t have any timeouts left,” Mayfield said. “He did a great job winning off the line of scrimmage and going and making a play.”
For the Raiders, it was a humiliating, forehead-slapping loss. A few weeks after losing at home to the Indianapolis Colts in the debut of Jeff Saturday, who had no collegiate or pro coaching experience, they fell to a quarterback who hasn’t even met everyone on his team.
But for the Rams, it was another “Why not?” moment.
“Man, you forget what winning’s like,” McVay said. “It sure is fun.”